Of research logs and other things

As I searched for information about my ancestors, I wrote down a few notes and questions.   Loose pieces of paper (some of which are still in my paper files!) and scribbled handwritten notes on a photocopy of a document.  Where and when did I find  this document?  If the document was from an online source, I don’t have the complete URL.  When did I access the website?  The date isn’t printed on the bottom of the page!  What was I thinking here??   Some times, I didn’t write down any notes at all or only a word or two.  Why is this document  in this folder?   Sound familiar?   Complete notes make the job easier.  “Easier?”, you say.  “Seems like it just takes more time to fill in all of those forms.  I need to follow these hints, find more information, and go to more websites!”   My opinion, exactly, before I started the Genealogy Do-Over.     Although, I must admit that I do have a few research logs in my files but with only minimal information.   I don’t have time to fill in a research log! takes time

What is a research log?   Simply, a research log is a form or format to document the process used to look for information.  In genealogy, we discover facts about a person and sources (a.k.a. documents) to support that fact.  When and where was the person born? After 1850, census records show the person’s age, and, therefore, a year of birth (+ or – 1 year) and the state where the person was born. Caution:  this is self-reported information.  I found more than one instance in which the person’s reported age on a census did not correspond to other records.  Which record do you believe?  That’s where analysis of the evidence comes in – another lesson in the Genealogy Do-Over and a subject for another blog.

What should be included on a research log?  An article about the research process on Family Search:   step 2, ‘Decide what you want to learn’,  Prepare a research log, ” [1]  outlined that information for me:

 Keep your research log up to date.  Organize and document as you go. Record the following:

  • Your research objective.  Name the person and event as soon as you have chosen them.
  • The records you want to search. It is probably easiest to enter records as you select them (usually while still looking at the catalog). Record enough information about each source so that someone could readily find it again—the source footnote information.
  • The results of your search. As soon as you have searched a record, note whether or not you found anything in the record. You may want to include a document number for copies you made.
  • Your e-mail and correspondence. Include the address you wrote to and what you requested. Including e-mail and correspondence on your research log is more efficient than on a separate Correspondence Log.
  • Genealogical telephone calls and visits. Include dates, full names, and results. Put interview notes on a separate piece of paper to go in the file.
  • Notes about your strategies, analysis, discrepancies, and questions. Logs should be more than just a list of sources. Make your research logs as well the journals of your genealogical thinking and ideas.

I found multiple examples of research logs online and in books.  Here are a few:

From Family Search:    Research Log in PDF format

Genealogy Log of documents searched and/or search plan

Research Record Sheet

Ancestors Research Log

In March, 2017, I started using   Thomas MacEntee’s Research Log in Excel format.  When I first looked at this form, I thought, “This is way too much work!”  Now that I have filled one out for about 20 of my ancestors, I can see the value.  As I organized my paper files, I found multiple copies of the same document.  Three copies of the same census record for James Posten?!?[2]  If I had done a research log and individual checklist for James back in 2005, when I revisited his records in 2011, I would have known that I had already found that specific census record.   I would have also known that a similar 1850 census record for James Postens [3] in the same county had been found.  Which one was actually about my ancestor?  Update:   Months after finding the first 1850 census record, I discovered that James had died in 1914.  I sent for, and received a copy of his death certificate[4].  His parents were reported as Thomas Posten and Esther Brown.  James, living in Hamilton Township with Thomas in 1850[5], is more likely to be my great-great grandfather than the other James Postens.

So, what can I change to improve my research techniques?  then and now

THEN:  I made a mental note, maybe wrote a brief note on a copy of the census records and put the paper copies in a file folder.  With a little luck, both pieces of paper ended up in the same folder!  NOW:    I find two similar records on the same day. Look carefully at each one and compare to other data.  Record any discrepancies and possible reasons for those discrepancies.  Determine which person is most likely to be my ancestor.  Before continuing to search for other information, enter comments and notes on research log and other computer-based program.   State why I think person #2 is not my ancestor and additional references/ sources as needed.  List possible alternatives on research log.  Print copy of research log for paper files.

Back to thoughts at beginning of this post: “But this takes too much time!”  I am beginning to think like this – Time spent now, recording and cataloguing data, will save me time later.  I won’t have to look up the source or try to remember where I got it again- I have both the record and complete citation, including where I found the information on the research log.  I won’t have to ask– how did I come to that conclusion? Analysis is recorded on the research log as well as next steps.  I won’t have to shuffle papers and try to remember what else I need – the information is on the research log and to-do list.  Yes, it takes time- 5 to 10 minutes per document.  This forces me to slow down and look more critically at the information.

Question: Will I ever need to look at the original record or photocopy again?  Answer:  Yes.   There may be additional information on the document that I didn’t record earlier.  Research on various family lines has sometimes been set aside for weeks or months.  Can I make the same conclusion that I did six months ago?  Do I have additional information that supports, or doesn’t support, the previous conclusion?


What did I learn?  There are multiple research log formats.  I picked one format and am beginning to use it—one family and one generation at a time, starting with dad’s family.  Why dad’s family?  Because I wrote a family history five years ago and it needs serious editing.  The research logs will help with citations and as I revise/ write each person’s story.

What helped my learning?  Writing this blog.  Actually filling out 3 different types of research logs to see which one worked best for me.  Reading about research logs from various sources.

What didn’t help my learning?  Too many choices.  Frustration at time it takes to fill out research log completely.  Duplication of efforts, as in re-writing citation 2-3 times.  Realizing that I am more of a novice genealogist than I thought.

Suggestions:    Avoid duplication of effort  by entering correct citation on genealogy software program, then copy and paste to research log.   Still struggling with the concept of slowing down when doing the research.  Document positive, negative, and questionable findings.  Record how this specific information fits (or doesn’t fit) with other information.

One more link:   Using and managing a research log

Overall reflection on the experience:  This has been a very steep learning curve for me.  I thought that I was fairly well organized. But, if I was so well organized, why did I even start the Genealogy Do-over?  Because I knew, deep down, that my records were a mess.  Remember that some information will be negative—not what I hoped to find or not support previous conclusions. The skills that I am learning will, ultimately, help as I revise dad’s family history and pursue additional opportunities in the field of genealogy.

[1] . Family History Research Wiki, (https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Prepare_a_Research_Log : accessed 14 June 2017):  “Prepare a research log.”

[2].1850 U.S. Census, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Hamiton Twp, p. 17B [penned], dwelling 220, family 220,  James Portons [Postens], age 19, born Pennsylvania; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com  :  accessed 19 May 2017); citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M432, roll 798, image 40.

[3]. 1850 U.S. Census, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Smithfield Twp, p. 127A [penned], dwelling 563, family 563,  James Postens, age 21, born Pennsylvania; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com  :  accessed 19 May 2017); citing National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M432, roll 798, image 251.

[4] Pennsylvania Department of Health, death certificate no 118955 (1914),  James D. Posten,  Bureau of Vital Statistics, New Castle.

[5] 1850 U.S. census, Monroe County, Pennsylvania, pop. Sch., Hamilton Twp. , p. 17B (penned), dwell. 200, fam. 220, James Portons [Postens].